The story appears on

Page A2

September 15, 2018

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

A history lesson of male beauty in China: Xiaoxianrou are nothing new

MALE beauty has become a hot topic in China, again, with many lamenting the popularity of men who, heavens forbid, use beauty products to take care of or improve how they look. Some are referring to this as a scary new trend that will hopefully pass soon, but men wearing makeup in China is anything but new. In fact, it’s been happening for thousands of years.

Chinese history is filled with surviving literary examples of not only the notion that men enjoyed using beauty products long ago, but that society, by and large, accepted and applauded it in different stages and to varying degrees of manliness.

For some reason, though, the debate has been heating up lately as to whether or not the popularity of male celebrities who look after their skin and color their hair and aren’t big and menacing — as well as the subsequent rise in ordinary guys around China following suit — is somehow dangerous or harmful to China’s youth. It got so heated that even academics have waded in, like Deng Xiquan, head of the Youth Research Institute, which is part of the China Youth and Children Research Center.

He said that it’s “not appropriate to promote the femininity of males publicly” but that we shouldn’t worry too much because it’s just a fad and will soon pass.

I think Deng is both right and wrong because, as I’m about to highlight, male beauty and the enhancing of male appearance using beauty products has been going on for a long, long time in China already.

Thankfully, China is a country with thousands of years’ worth of surviving literature which can not only describe a certain part of history, but can also tell us a little something about contemporary China.

First let’s go back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220) and the Three Kingdoms and Six Dynasties period (AD 222–589) where men strived to look good, often using artificial methods to do so. In fact, the Han Dynasty is perhaps when white face powder first became popular among men and boys. A man called He Yan was an official and scholar of the time, under Emperor Wen of Wei. He Yan was talked about widely in the court because of his beautiful, white complexion — one account describes him as “handsome in appearance and demeanor” and “never without a powder puff in his hand.”

As far back as the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), the Chinese word “mei” (beautiful), which today is largely used to describe feminine beauty, related to the beauty of both sexes. In the “Classics of Poetry,” beauty was largely gender free, which would make today’s criticisms of xiaoxianrou somewhat confusing back in the day. But things slowly changed over the centuries until today, when “beautiful” is largely removed from descriptions of men.

By the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), men who wore makeup and used artificial means to enhance their beauty had fallen out of favor. In a book called “The Unofficial History of Longyang” from 1632, “excessive femininity” in boys, especially the use of makeup, was frowned upon. Women of the time were praised for their “artificial” beauty, while men were required to be “natural” and unadorned. Some tweaks were allowed, the book said, but male beauty was ideally “artificial only for three parts out of ten.”

These are just a few examples from China’s long history where the pendulum, in relation to male beauty, has swung back and forth. There are many, many more.

He Yan, that official from the Han Dynasty thousands of years ago, probably wouldn’t be surprised that online sales of makeup products for young men in China have climbed a massive 100% since two years ago. He would probably be relieved and curious, if he arrived here in a time machine, that he could jump on Taobao and order some men’s BB cream (a skin cream which covers imperfections and lightens the skin). He might even be a little envious as he walked down the streets of Shanghai and was bombarded with advertisements featuring the TF Boys, Zhang Yixing and even Eddie Peng.

As a male, looking after one’s skin and covering imperfections, whether it’s today or thousands of years ago, is completely fine, and it has absolutely nothing at all to do with one’s degree or “manliness.” People like Hong Kong celebrity Nicholas Tse need to remember that when they throw out comments like “men should get their hormones back.”

And Deng Xiquan, that academic who says we shouldn’t promote “femininity” in males, is also probably right when he argues China’s current obsession with xiaoxianrou is just a fad. The thing is, though, it might be a few thousand years until the pendulum swings back again!


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend